Matt Costa reminded me of a lesson I'd learned when I won Grand Prix D.C. two years ago. It was one of the most important lessons I've ever learned playing Magic.
As D.C. approached, I wasn't focused on Standard because I was preparing for an upcoming Pro Tour. At the venue, I scoured the room on Friday trying to figure out what to play and whether anyone had new tech. Paulo Vitor was running around, saying he wanted to play an untested Mono Red deck. At the time, I felt like that sounded better than running the U/W deck I'd been playing on Magic Online, thinking Paulo was obviously a better player.
However when I got back to my room with a Mono Red decklist in my hand, Chris Lachmann started laughing at me. In a condescending tone, he said, "You are really going to play that deck over what you've been playing forever online? You'd have to be real stupid to not just play what you know." That line sold me.
I worked on updating my U/W deck, and because I knew how to play my deck and had a little luck on my side, I took down the Grand Prix.
I ended up beating Owen Turtenwald in the finals of this event. Owen was playing Jund, which was arguably the best deck in the format with U/W in second. He played Jund for almost an entire year, while I'd been playing U/W Tapout ever since it broke out at Pro Tour San Diego. These two decks had been jockeying for position throughout the season.
Like the Back of My Hand
Playing what you know has been a tried and true method for climbing to pro-level Magic. When I first started watching professional Magic, I noticed Paulo Vitor was one of these players. He played Faeries at every major event. While he didn't win any of those events, he constantly made Top 8 with a real shot at the title. He gave himself these opportunities by learning how to a play so well that it didn't matter how the format shifted.
It was the smartest move he could make. He didn't have a good way to playtest, and he didn't play on Magic Online, so he just kept playing the same deck over and over again. Once a month, he'd update his list.
At the time, I tried to absorb as much information as possible to become better as a player. I became decent with Faeries. Not because I learned how to master the deck, but because I learned from a master. I would use the high-level theory he gave me at my local Friday Night Magic. I ended up winning 14 straight FNMs that season. My results started translating into Magic Online, and I made a name for myself.
This year is proving to be an incredible year for tournaments. Every weekend is filled with a Pro Tour, Grand Prix, SCG Open, Pro Tour Qualifier, SCG Invitational Qualifier, Grand Prix Trial, or local event. The time you have to prepare for each individual tournament has been reduced because tournaments are going on all the time. It's very difficult to break the same format multiple times in a month.
This is where you see grinders shine. They play the same deck week in and week out. Sometimes it's a good choice; other times, it's a great one, but it'll rarely be a bad choice.
Matt Costa is the most recent example.
Matt recently won Grand Prix Baltimore with Delver Blade (with Swords and Runechanter's Pikes). Delver Blade was not the most popular deck in the room. U/B Control skyrocketed in popularity because I and a couple other writers talked about how good it was going to be in the event. Why is that relevant, you say?
The reason is that the shell that everyone played was based on Ben Stark's list from Grand Prix Orlando. He designed that deck to crush Delver Blade to a pulp. Orlando was crawling with Invisible Stalkers, and Stark figured out the perfect formula to put it into the ground. So how could Costa pilot his way through a field of his worst matchup? Were people playing a version of U/B that was worse in that matchup?
While they did have a few weaker cards for the matchup, that wasn't the reason. The reason is that Matt has been playing Delver Blade for most of this season, and he knew how to beat every opponent. He brought new threats to the table and used new strategies to take down the heavy hitters. Only a master of the archetype could've done what he did.
Rock, Scissors, Scissors
It is a good time to clarify that this does not work with any deck in the format. Right now, it's Delver Blade (which supports Geist of Saint Traft). Before, it was Caw-Blade (Stoneforge Mystic), Valakut (of the Pinnacle), Jund (Bloodbraid Elf), Faeries (Bitterblossom), Affinity (Arcbound Ravager), and so forth. These decks maximize one card perfectly. They are the rock that defines the format they exist in. They'll always attract hate and still find ways to win games. Wizards tries to keep these decks under control in The Future Future League, but they underestimate them. In most tournaments we play, we should wield one of these decks.
The biggest reason to play these decks is not that you will become very good with them. That is just a huge bonus. The fact of the matter is these decks give you the most free wins. Free wins are a part of Magic that most of us don't utilize enough. Our opponent shuffles their deck; they mulligan to oblivion; they lose the game. We play Geist of Saint Traft, and they cannot deal with it; they lose the game. Both of these scenarios end in a game win. Getting handed these free wins is very important for finding your way to the Top 8. Luck plays a role in most tournament finishes, and playing cards that maximize your chances in this fashion helps.
It is fair to say that every deck these days is centered around one specific card. U/W Humans has Champion of the Parish. Wolf Run Ramp has Primeval Titan. Tempered Steel has some card that I always forget the name of. Zombies has Geralf's Messenger. All of these decks were built because of the one powerful spell that is in each of them. However none of these cards can hold a candle to Geist of Saint Traft. It's just a better card.
Two weeks ago, I played U/B Control in Baltimore and regretted it. I played a version that was worse against the mirror, after writing about the deck, and got handed two losses to my own 75. U/B Control also doesn't get many free wins. There are some games where you basically can't lose after turn four, but you still end up losing some of those.
The best argument against playing the best deck all season is that there will be a couple tournaments where the deck is a terrible choice. Caw-Blade was the most dominant deck in years, and yet the deck was horrible for GP Pittsburgh. The hall was crawling with decks geared to beat every Squadron Hawk in sight. Even then, just like Matt Costa, Yuuya Watanabe still managed to win the event with Caw-Blade. Overall, the deck had its worst win percentage at that tournament, but one of the best players still found a way to win with it.
This does not prove that the best deck in the format will not have bad weeks, but it shows that good players who know their deck can still pull off wins from poor positions.
If You're Not First, You're Last
Deck decisions are really difficult, and we cannot solve them because Magic is a self-correcting game. If 99% of the field has one deck, then the 1% with its kryptonite will easily win. That's a radical example, but that's why we have metagames and why most players don't just play the most powerful deck.
Personality also plays a huge role in the decks that people play. It is very difficult to actually play something you are not comfortable with.
For example, Ben Stark piloted Valakut to amazing finishes, with a far higher win rate than the average pilot, but not many pros picked it up. The pros tend to want more control over what happens in a game, and ramping for multiple turns is a very linear strategy.
You have to be comfortable with what you are piloting. It's hard to win when you don't enjoy yourself. We play this game for fun after all, and other factors can sometimes cloud this fact.
When I was PTQing, I only found enjoyment in winning the event. This is not a bad thing, since the main goal of traveling great distances to compete in these events is to make it to the Pro Tour. I would play anything if it gave me the best chance to win the event. I eventually won my first PTQ playing a deck I worked on for an entire season. It never occurred to me before now that this is how I managed to get on the Tour. It wasn't the best deck in the format, but it was what I knew, and I knew it well.
What counts as a good result depends on which event you are playing in. Eighth place at a Pro Tour is a very good finish, but eighth place at a PTQ is usually a disappointment. Figuring out where you need to finish is important when deciding what to play.
There are a few times during a season where an off-the-radar deck is a good choice. There are also times when playing a deck that loses to the most popular deck is right because it beats everything else. Making smart choices here are what turn good players into great ones. There are also situations where finding the correct line is impossible. Instead of shooting in the dark, playing the best deck can have the highest percentage for success.
Play amazing Magic; get free wins; roll to the top.
I need to do this more, and you should try it next season (or even right now).
This is the deck that I think is by far the best in the format. Start learning it now, and try to prove me wrong.